Joan Tanenhaus explores some of the innovative educational resources that combine the power of the iPad with the benefits of manipulating physical objects

Tablets, laptops, smartphones, hand-held electronic games, and other related ‘screens’ have become an important focus of our everyday lives. Some of the concerns we hear are about the lack of face-to-face contact they encourage and the subsequent concerns about isolation and lack of socialisation. There are now several new products that work with the iPad and have taken screen-time to the next step — children and young adults can now interact with their iPads, individually and/or in groups, by using and manipulating related physical objects, such as shapes, number lines, puzzle pieces, letters, numbers, and more. Great for language learning, motor skills, visual spatial abilities, literacy, creative thinking and problem solving, they also set a context for turn-taking, cooperative and competitive play and for the enhancement of social skills, conversation and communication.


Tiggly has created three learning games that have manipulatives that work along with a series of apps on the iPad 2, 3, 4, Air and Mini. The interactive pieces that go with the sets are 3D objects that the iPad recognises. The shapes, counting pieces and letters have silicone touch points so the tablet recognises and reacts to them when they touch the screen. Each package also includes a draw-string bag to keep the pieces together. Users download the free Tiggly apps which can also be played in eight different languages (and without the manipulatives, if desired).

Tiggly Shapes comes with a red square, a green circle, a yellow triangle and a blue star and three free apps. In Tiggly Safari, children use the shapes to construct animals from the jungle and the farm. In Tiggly Stamps, children use their shapes to build characters, objects, fruits and veggies related to winter and summer. They can take pictures of their scenes, or tell a story and create a video. In Tiggly Draw, children can create characters with the shapes and add mouth, eyes, hats, nose, tails, wings and more. They can change the background colour and add music too! Pictures can be saved and sent to friends. Apps are open ended and errorless and encourage creative thinking.

Tiggly Math comes with five different number strips — a red with one square, yellow with two, green with three, blue with four, and purple with five — and three more free apps. In Tiggly Chef, children match up and combine their number strips to count food items. To add five pineapples, users can use the five-number strip, or use the single square placed one at a time on each pineapple, or make their own combinations (3 + 2 or 3+1+1, etc.) while being reinforced with visual and counting cues which will all lead to greater understanding of numbers and their relationship to each other. Activities also encourage users to understand vocabulary, attend to the screen and select appropriate pictures. Children can also create their own recipes for others to prepare. In Tiggly Cardtoons, children choose their counting toys to create coins, count coins, drag coins to targets, and watch them turn into animated cardtoons. Tiggly Addventure, has many number-line activities to help counting, adding and skip counting.

Tiggly Words

Tiggly Words

Tiggly Words comes with five letters — all the vowels — in different colours and with three free apps. In Tiggly Submarine, there are four different activities in the ocean, each designed to help users learn about short vowels and the sounds they make. There are errorless activities and an activity to choose the correct vowel to complete words to rescue trapped animals and objects. In Tiggly Tales, children touch to see a CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) pattern, with the vowel missing. Place a vowel on the screen, and if the word has meaning, it will appear on screen with a fun animation. Users can also record and narrate a story about the objects and animations. The third app is Tiggly Doctor, which is a word-completion game with emphasis on language and verbs. Children fill in the missing vowels to complete the spelling of verbs and other words and then watch the actions or hear the definitions spoken aloud. A new app that works with the Tiggly vowels is Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen. In this app, created jointly by Tiggly and Sesame Street Workshop, Cookie Monster encourages children to create three- and four-letter words by adding the Tiggly vowels. Children are presented with the two of the three letters and place one letter in the missing space to hear the letter sounds and make cookies that picture the word. Children can colour the cookies, take pictures, and feed them to Cookie Monster. (All of the Tiggly apps can also be played without the manipulatives so if they sound interesting, check them out in the Apple App store.)

Tiggly toys and their included apps provide young children with many opportunities for language learning, counting skills, beginning number and math concepts, motor skills, visual discrimination, problem solving, and creative thinking. They work well for home and school and when played together with others provide a context for socialisation and communication. Watch for Tiggly Storybook (will work with Tiggly Shapes) and a new subtraction app (for Tiggly Math) coming in early 2016.


Osmo is a new gaming accessory for the iPad that can be played by children ages four and up and comes with assorted games that work with an iPad Mini and iPad version 2 or higher. The Osmo package comes with a reflective mirror for the iPad camera, a white iPad stand and the game pieces. The reflective mirror is a red attachable piece that lets the iPad see the environment below and in front of it and translate movements to the iPad.

The first game, Words, is outstanding for all ages — and a really fun family game too. It comes with two sets of upper-case alphabet letters, one in red and one in blue. At its easiest level, it presents a large clear concrete picture (i.e., a cat) and three circles. The first circle is blank and the last two contain the letters ‘A’ and ‘T’. Players then slide, flick or fling their tiles into the game area to complete the word. The letters can be placed anywhere the camera can see them; when they are recognised they light up on the iPad. You can select the level of difficulty or start at the beginning and the words will get harder as you go along. Some of the higher levels show pictures that are more abstract and show only blank circles (like Hangman). If you connect to the Library, you can download additional albums from a wide range of topics. You can also create your own picture collections with the pictures and words of your choice. If the game is played by two with both sets of letters, it will keep scores for each person. Words is a great way to work on spelling words, sight words, phonics skills, vocabulary and many other language and literacy skills, while also encouraging independent use and/or collaboration and cooperative play.

Numbers, the newest Osmo game, contains two sets of tiles — one with 20 two-sided digits (two each of 0-9, one in red and one in orange) and one with 20 two-sided dots (10 1’s, six 2’s, and four 5’s). With an ‘under the sea’ theme, the game encourages children to release captured fish as they arrange the tiles to make number combinations and complete tasks and levels. Children explore and experiment with number concepts as they learn about counting, addition, subtraction and multiplication. The app starts with the Count mode which uses the dot tiles, and as the game is played, other levels are unlocked and new modes (Add, Connect and Multiply) become available (and are played with the number tiles). There is a feature in the settings that lets you unlock the modes so that users can begin playing at more advanced levels if they are older. You are also able to use the apps with multiple users by creating online accounts/profiles for each user. Numbers can also be played with more than one players to encourage collaboration in problem solving. Osmo Numbers will be compatible with the manipulatives in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s (HMH) leading math programs Go Math! and Math Expressions. HMH will provide Osmo activity guides which will suggest games and activities that integrate HMH with Osmo, providing further extension of school learning.

Tangram, another outstanding game, comes with seven coloured wooden Tangram puzzle pieces. Players arrange them in the area in front of the iPad to match on-screen shapes. Puzzle completion is guided piece by piece and accompanied by soothing music and with no time limits. The shapes on the screen light up when you put two pieces together in the right place. There are four levels of puzzle complexity, including an Intro to Tangram mode for younger children (4+). New puzzles get more challenging as easier ones are completed. There are over 400 puzzles for players to unlock as they play the game. Tangram is good for spatial thinking, eye-hand coordination and visual perceptual skills — and motivating and challenging for all ages.

There are currently two other Osmo activities that do not require pieces. Newton consists of on-screen rolling balls that come down from the top of the screen. Players use paper and pen to draw lines and shapes to guide the balls into the targeted zones. They can also use objects like keys, sticks, even the Tangram pieces and Word tiles. There are many different levels of difficulty that become unlocked automatically upon completion of easier levels. In Masterpiece, players pick a picture from their photos, camera, online or from the program gallery, and the program converts it to a line drawing. Users trace the line drawings on paper placed in front of the iPad while watching the onscreen lines. Pictures can be saved and emailed to others.

Osmo is an interesting and educational expansion of traditional tablet use — visit the website to see videos of the different activities and applications and visit myOsmo to explore other options and ideas for both home and school use.

Junior Learning Touchtronic sets

With Junior Learning’s products for the iPad 2 and later, users can manipulate and handle plastic letters and numbers — independently, with family or friends, within the classroom or at home — and use them in conjunction with a group of free Apple literacy apps. Good for ages three and up, each of the letters and numbers has sensors on the back and a unique signature that is recognised by the iPad. The set of Letters contains 26 lower-case, colour-coded letters with consonants in blue and vowels in red. The set of Numbers has 10 numbers in purple (0-9) along with six orange symbols for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, equals, and greater than/less than. Included also is a draw-string carry bag to help keep the pieces together. Available separately, there is a Placeholder which helps organise the letters and numbers during play. For group play, these manipulative can be used for turn-taking activities, team play, and can set a context for teacher or therapist for language, communication and conversation.

Touchtronic Letters
This set of 26 letters and two free Apple apps provides activities to learn and practice recognising lower-case letters, letter-sound relationships and beginning CVC words. The first app, Touchtronics ABC’s,  contains three literacy activities. In Mystery Doors the child places any letter on the iPad where directed to hear the name of the letter, the sound it makes and a name of an object that begins with that sound. The letter will appear on screen along with the object’s picture. In Letter Bubbles the child pops bubbles by matching the beginning letter sound. Finally, in Word Machine the child touches the missing letter on the screen to complete the CVC word. (Users see a picture, two of three letters of the word and hear ‘I’m a dog, what’s my beginning letter sound?’ Some show the missing vowel; others the beginning or ending letter sounds). The second app is 3 Letter Words (users stamp letters to make words, which are then sounded out [c-a-t] and shown. This is a good activity for showing how changing a single letter/sound at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of a word changes the word’s meaning).

Touchtronic Numbers
This set of numbers and math symbols contain two apps. The first, Touchtronic 123’s, has three activities: Counting Train (how many passengers?); Value Handcar (see two numbers with accompanying dots — hear ‘Is it greater, less than or equal?’); and Grain Factory (place the missing number in the equation, i.e., 6-3 = ?). The second app is Place Value Fish (errorless activity — place any numbers in hundreds, tens and ones areas and see that many beads, blocks or fish. The quantity will be spoken. You can also place a plus or minus symbol to increase or decrease the place value by ones, tens and hundreds).

Touchtronic Numbers

Touchtronic Numbers

Touchtronic Placeholder
This is a heavy cardboard-coated, double-sided mat — semicircular in shape. The front has all the letters of the alphabet in red and blue (to match the pieces) and the back has all the numbers and math symbols in purple and orange. The iPad sits in the middle. It organises the letters and numbers during play, reinforces correct sequencing, and can be used as a matching activity. It’s very helpful in teaching children to search and find the letters and numbers.

The Junior Learning Touchtronic Letters and Numbers, together with the Placeholder, present young children with an alternate way to play and learn at the iPad. It’s a good addition to both home and school learning and when played together with others can encourage literacy, language and turn-taking.


About Contributors

Joan Tanenhaus, MA, CCC, speech-language pathologist/assistive technology specialist, is Founder and Executive Director of Technology for Language and Learning, Inc., a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the use of computers and technology with children and adults with special needs. (e-mail:

Leave A Reply